Eco Therapy: Therapy As If The Human-Nature Relationship Matters
By Monika Wengler
There is exciting news on the horizon of therapy. More and more therapists, counselors and, healers are recognizing that some of the more common complaints they encounter, such as depression, anxiety disorders or feelings of loneliness and isolation, may not necessarily be caused by our messed up childhood or earlier traumatic experiences, but instead might have something to do with the environment we live in. After focusing on the inner and often unconscious parts of our psyche for decades, this new approach in therapy takes into account that the outer world of the environment we live in influences our personal experiences and states of being.
While traditional psychotherapists treat their client’s internal problems through pharmaceuticals like Prozac, mindfulness practices like meditation, or old-fashioned talk therapy by the hour, ecotherapists believe that treatment must include a review of our relationship to the natural world and spending time outdoors.
Ecotherapy is an umbrella term for nature-based methods of physical and psychological healing. While Ecotherapy is a relatively new field, according to author and depth psychologist Dr. Craig Chalquist it has an impressive set of preliminary research findings, while it takes into account the latest scientific research and the deepest indigenous wisdom.
I am personally excited about this new approach to therapy. All through my life I have felt a special connection to plants and rocks and consider them my partners in healing. I was blessed by growing up with a big garden, which supplied my family with fruits and vegetables, and later lived and worked on an organic vegetable farm here in WNC for 20 years. As a therapist, I always felt that “just talking” was not enough to bring about real change in people, so I focused on body centered methods of counseling. While these methods allowed clients to experience healing energy through all their senses and afforded them a different sensation of wellbeing, I felt that my capacity as another human being in this process was limited. Through the concept of ecotherapy, I finally have the opportunity to tap into nature’s vast healing capacities in the therapeutic process.
Industrial Western culture has traditionally limited the concept of psychology to strictly human realms. From an ecopsychological perspective, however, our emotional, physical and mental lives have both individual and collective dimensions. We do not live in isolation but in relationship with the earth, with water, animals, plants, rocks, clouds and stars. Ecotherapists point out that human beings have evolved in synchrony with nature for millions of years and that we are hard-wired to interact with our environment. In the past two centuries, though, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, people have been steadily removed from the natural world, our lives regulated not by the sun or moon but instead by the factory clock.
This removal from the natural world has created a plethora of ailments, from individual disorders such as stress, anxiety or depression to breakdowns of the social order, increased aggression and disrupted parenting patterns, according to Professor Frances Kuo.
Stephen Ilardi, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, observes that “the more ‘modern’ a society’s way of life, the higher its rate of depression. It may seem baffling, but the explanation is simple: the human body was never designed for the modern postindustrial environment.” A similar observation is made by Dr. Andrew Weil who notes that “behaviors strongly associated with depression—reduced physical activity and human contact, overconsumption of processed food, seeking endless distraction—are the similar observation is made by Dr. Andrew Weil who notes that “behaviors strongly associated with depression—reduced physical activity and human contact, overconsumption of processed food, seeking endless distraction—are the very behaviors that more and more people now can do, are even forced to do by the nature of their sedentary, indoor jobs.”
I recently became very aware of this “modern way of life” on a brief trip to Florida. A friend and I attended a food show and stayed at a hotel right in the middle of Downtown Disney, Orlando. What an experience! I knew that not everybody in the States lives in a beautiful place and as close to nature as we do here in Western North Carolina, but I had forgotten how far removed from nature one can become. In Orlando nothing is real or natural; everything is artificial, from the fake facades on the buildings to the man-made lakes and the manicured landscapes. Not a single plant grows where it wants to and there are no animals, besides the occasional lizard that somehow survives on the orange-mulched flowerbeds or the lost and lonely duck on one of the perfectly shaped ponds and, naturally, the omnipresent over-sized cartoon mice. I can’t even imagine living in a place like this and am wondering what kind of defense mechanisms people have to come up with to survive in a hostile environment like this. Of course they don’t think of it as hostile but believe that this completely man-made and man-controlled environment affords them safety and comfort. In the meantime, science finds that overcontrolled environments that are dominated by air conditioners, hand sanitizers and disinfectants actually create new disorders, allergies and super-bugs.
Michael Cohen proposes in his Natural Systems Thinking Process that:
• Nature sustains its perfection by recycling itself; nature continually purifies and heals its disorders.
• We suffer many discontents because although we are part of nature, most of us live excessively nature-separated lives; we deprive ourselves of nature’s restorative qualities.
• When we visit a natural area and begin to feel revitalized or clearheaded, we are sensing natural systems starting to heal our stress or disturbed thinking.
Unfortunately, not only have we cut ourselves off from this healing energy of the natural systems, but through our modern lifestyle, are also impeding nature from healing itself. Or, as Theodore Roszak puts it: “Distancing ourselves from nature has negative psychological consequences for people and also leads to ecological devastation at the hands of a society that, as a result, lacks empathy for nature.” A path of true wellness is one that awakens our inherent sense of affiliation with the more-than-human nature and brings us into direct experience of deep connection with it. This perspective goes far beyond simply using nature as a tool for increasing a personal sense of wellbeing but also takes into account the wellness of the larger system. Following this concept, ecotherapy attempts to heal the deep wound of separation between human beings and the natural world by seeking to build greater emotional connections between people and the planet for betterment of both.
“We still carry this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a primal recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the Earth. It is a felt reverence for all that exists. Once we bring this foundational quality into our consciousness, we will be able to respond to our present man-made crisis from a place of balance, in which our actions will be grounded in an attitude of respect for all of life. This is the nature of real sustainability.” — Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
Monika Wengler is a LPCA, has lived and worked on an organic farm in Weaverville for 20 years and recently moved into the city. She has extensive training in Somatic Experiencing and Internal Family Systems. Lately she studied Terrapsychology with Craig Chalquist at Schumacher College, UK. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.